The Art Of The Sit-In | George Porter Jr.
Words By: Chad Berndtson
Welcome to another edition of The Art of the Sit-In, where we mix it up with the scene’s most adventurous players and hear some stories from the road. For more, check out our recent interviews with Jason Hann, Jason Crosby, Vince Herman, Scott Metzger and many more.
How do you adequately introduce a musician like George Porter Jr.? You can start with his being part of the Meters, a foundational band in funk, and move on from there to countless other associations inside and beyond the scope of New Orleans music, and yet you’re still only approaching the breadth of his influence and the height of regard for which the music community holds for the man and his bass playing.
As Warren Haynes once said following Porter’s brief stint as the anchor for Gov’t Mule, “George matters.”
Porter collaborates all over the place: older musicians, younger musicians, funk musicians, non-funk musicians. If he can be said to have a regular band, it’s the Runnin Pardners, a collective of players he’s recorded with and run, on and off, for nearly 30 years. But next to Runnin Pardners gigs, he plays with his former bandmates in the occasionally reuniting Original Meters, plays with the Funky Meters, plays with the Meter Men, which is three-quarters of the original Meters with a hired-gun keyboardist, and plays with just about anyone who asks him, which is basically everyone.
Porter joined JamBase for a 45-minute conversation ahead of his return, this week, to Jam Cruise, where he will once again be an artist-at-large. We touched on all his Meters associations, what he’s focused on now, and whether we might ever hear again from some of his short-lived, but much-respected collaborations such as 7 Walkers.
JAMBASE: So what kind of year has 2014 been for you?
GEORGE PORTER JR: I think the year went really well. I got the Runnin Pardners to England for a nice little short run and that was very successful. And we’ve been writing some new music and discovering some interesting internal stuff inside the band that keep us mixing it up. I thought it was a very productive year.
JAMBASE: If I’m not mistaken, the Runnin Pardners band goes back a few decades.
GPJ: Oh yeah. I think it goes as far back as ‘82, ‘83 maybe. It started as a trio, actually, and over the years it’s grown a bit and changed, and at one point in time it was a nine-piece band, and I think maybe for one performance –for my 60th birthday –it was 11 pieces, with a six-piece horn section.
JAMBASE: And what do you mean by discovering some interesting internal stuff?
GPJ: We’ve been figuring out different ways to play and they are all working. I’ve done some trio gigs with some of the members, and different trios depending on who is available, sometimes with Chris, the saxophone player, and a few with Mike Lindsey, the keyboard player.
For one of the trios, I’ve got seven and a half hours of multitrack recording that we’re mixing. The plan is to give a bunch of these shows to different engineers so there are different sets of ears on each project –see where everything is. I just heard about 30 minutes of the first mix Mike sent me, and it sounds pretty good. We did these over three Mondays over a period of a month in November at the Maple Leaf.
JAMBASE: Did you have any particularly memorable gigs in 2014? Ones that really stand out beyond all the other fun stuff you do?
GPJ: With the Runnin Pardners it’s hard to say because the band evolves and varies so often now. Khris has been really busy with this band Rebelution, so for much of this year we’ve been going out as a quartet. When the dates line up, and Khris can make it back and play with us, that’s always special –it’s like bringing the missing voice back into the band. But I don’t have a particular gig. Each night can be special. My band is the type that if we played five nights in a row and chose the exact same setlist, every night would be different. We don’t have a limit, we’re a pretty pure jamband.
JAMBASE: How are you picking your gigs these days? It seems like you have a solid mix of Runnin Pardners shows, Meters-centric shows and some space in between for other projects.
GPJ: The nice thing is that I don’t pick as much as I used to –I leave that to Blue Mountain, my booking agency. Mike Davidson over there is the person I talk with on a daily basis, and since Blue Mountain Artists recently took on the Meter Men, that makes it even easier.
JAMBASE: The Meter Men seems like it’s been a really good experience and has become a focus for you.
GPJ: Yes, and that is true. We have used Page [McConnell] more than anyone else at this point, but Page won’t be available as much as the band wants to work. So we have John Gros on keyboards for some of it, and we’ve also used Rich Vogel from Galactic and Robert Walter, which went really well. I think [in 2015] we will have a few dates with Medeski. That should be a lot of fun. We’ve entered into an agreement to see if we can get this band out there and really make it work.
But to your last question, I’ll still take some gigs on my own when I’m home but I let Blue Mountain run my whole package. Every time I try to do something myself I usually double book myself! [Laughs] Recently I had talked with Stanton Moore about doing this drum clinic, and I’m sitting down looking at the TV one Saturday night and Stanton calls and he’s like, “Hey, you all ready for tomorrow?” And I’m like, “Oh hey Stanton, what’s happening tomorrow?” [laughs] And he goes, “We’re doing the clinic at the Mint! The one with the kids.” And I’m like, “Ohhh man. I didn’t remember. I’ll be there though!”
JAMBASE: I want to go back to the Meter Men for a second. These are all seasoned keyboardists you guys have brought in. Still, having to enter a situation where it’s three-quarters of a legendary band –and all the chemistry that you, Zigaboo and Leo have had for decades –has to be a little intimidating. How do you manage that with those players?
GPJ: All of these guys are players, you know, and the three of us haven’t been so demanding and strict that we haven’t allowed the keyboard player to bring himself into the music. We’re doing basically all Meter music with that, but you know, personally speaking, I think we should venture deeper into that music catalog. I want to. That catalog is deep. I’d like to see us really dig deep and pull out some gems. There is some music that’s basically been unplayed –music that we could really be killing on.
I think a lot of times musicians get keyholed into thinking the public only wants to hear the hits. And that may be true to some degree. But man, where I’m sitting, if I don’t play “Cissy Strut” again, I might just be OK with that. [Laughs] I’m joking, but I think there are songs just as good and definitely just as funky and productive as “Cissy Strut.”
JAMBASE: What’s an example of a deep-catalog Meters tune you want to bring out?
GPJ: Oh man. “Britches.” None of the bands I’ve played with for a long time have done that. I recorded “Britches” with the Runnin Pardners and it still has not really been played live, you know what I’m saying? It’s one of those songs that gets done in the studio, and everyone thinks it’s great, and then when it comes to playing it live, it just doesn’t get played. Another one –a real guitar song –is called “The Mop.” It’s greasy and funky, oh yeah.
I understand when some guys say these songs just lay there and don’t go nowhere so why would we play ‘em? But these days, we have an opportunity, because I don’t think this music has to be considered note for note. I think it can be interpreted and really jammed on. I did a CD called Can’t Beat the Funk, and that whole record was 16 of my favorite what I would call unplayed Meters songs. Fourteen of them made the record and two more I gave away on my website. I just think there is so much music that that band put out there that is just untouched. I’d like to touch them all and touch them good –reinterpret them. Today’s jam scene would really embrace it. They were just two and a half minute songs when we recorded them and we could jam them out.
JAMBASE: You’ve been obviously well known for a long time but a lot of younger fans in the jam scene got to first know you in the early part of the 2000s when you were playing with a lot of jam scene bands, especially Gov’t Mule. It seems like some of the jam scene thing has rubbed off on you.
GPJ: You know, unbeknownst to the Meters, we were probably the first jamband. Because again, all of our songs when we recorded them were two and a half minutes –I don’t even think we had a three-minute song in the beginning. So when we were out on the road and we had one record, we would have had to play “Cissy Strut” like 15 times to fill the whole gig! [laughs] So we started getting out there. We just go other places and into pieces of music.
I’d love to revisit that time period, and back in the day, the only person recording our gigs was me. I had a little pocket cassette player and I’d tape those gigs. There’s some of that stuff on recordings out there and [bootlegs] but I have all these cassette tapes somewhere in a drawer. I really wish I had the time to go back and revisit and listen to some of that stuff.
JAMBASE: Do you think the Original Meters will play again?
GPJ: At this point, I would use the words “never say never.” And for me personally, hopefully that’s a decision that gets made before we lose any of the original players. Art [Neville] is doing his very best to stay as healthy as he can. Man, he turns 77 this year, and his health has not been the greatest.
But he’s standing there –he’s trying. I think he needs more encouragement to play music again because I’m not sure he gets enough of that. Me, I’m gone so much of the time that I can’t go over there and knock on the door and push him to play more. I love to get up and go look at the TV, man, but I also play out a lot. I might play four, five times a week still so that keeps me going.
JAMBASE: But Art is still part of the Funky Meters?
GPJ: Oh yeah, absolutely. There is no Funky Meters without him. We played Oakland and Denver and we keep these little runs with that band.
JAMBASE: Another band I wanted to ask you about is PBS. I’m familiar with the details of the lawsuit and the challenges that ended that band, but you’re of course aware of how much some fans really dug PBS.
GPJ: Yeah, PBS. I can’t say that could ever happen again, and it’s for two reasons. Technically –legally –we couldn’t play as that band. I left PBS because of the way management was allowing things to happen. I wasn’t happy there anymore. As much as I love the players, what was starting to happen disoriented me to the point where I knew it was time to leave. I said, if I’m going to put this much more time into something that makes me unhappy, I might as well put so much time into another band for more money that makes me unhappy. It was time to leave it. I came home and took off for a while, and did another record with the Runnin Pardners and decided that that was who I was happy playing with.
Then later on there was the Runnin Pardners, the Meter Men came back and I can make money doing that and also with the Funky Meters and enjoy those things. I have the things I like close enough now that I wouldn’t go back to the PBS thing. But to answer your question, legally, that band I don’t think could actually play again because of what’s still being resolved in the courts. We’re talking hundreds of thousands in royalties. I haven’t seen a royalty statement from that band in almost 5 years now.
That was life changing. I had to basically –we all did, but I was the first one to file for bankruptcy to protect myself, otherwise I couldn’t live, I couldn’t pay my bills.
JAMBASE: It seems like you’ve returned to a good space these days, though.
GPJ: I believe I am in a good space. I am happy in my skin. I enjoy playing –I’m still very creative and I’m attempting to be more creative. I’m looking for other adventures that musically, I believe I can fit into a gel with. So I’m very happy with what it is. But I needed that craziness go away so my wife could stop worrying. She worries about me and I can’t have her worrying about our future.
JAMBASE: Let’s talk about these other adventures. I think one band you were part of that comes up a lot with fans is 7 Walkers. I spoke with Malcolm [Papa Mali] a few months back and he mentioned that a reunion almost happened at Jazz Fest.
GPJ: Yeah. I found out about the reunion about half an hour after it ended, though. Whoever was going to be the one to tell me that didn’t tell me. I got a phone call saying, man, 7 Walkers is going to try to play down at…I can’t even remember which place, it was over the Warehouse district, and I’m like, oh wow, and I jumped up and got in my truck. I get there and the gig is over.
7 Walkers, though, I personally don’t think that’s something that’s going to happen again. That’s just me saying that, but I believe Bill has moved on. I understand he’s trying a new band now. One of the things that someone told me when I got involved with 7 Walkers is man, don’t put all your eggs in the basket with Bill –he changes bands like underwear! And that’s cool. The band lasted I think two and a half years –that’s not a bad run. I believe it could have lasted longer, probably if Malcolm hadn’t been sick.
But when Bill and I first got into it, at least when I first got there, I wasn’t sure how exactly into the Dead they wanted us to go. There were some songs that I played in Mickey Hart’s band like “Sugaree” and “Eyes of the World.” I didn’t really sing in Mickey’s band, but man, I really like those two songs, so I asked Bill if I could sing them.
The first night I did “Sugaree” with 7 Walkers, Bill was like, that’s your song, you own that now. And then we did “Eyes of the World” at a soundcheck and he was like, yeah, you’ve got that too. So those are the two that stuck with me. “Lovelight” too though that wasn’t a Grateful Dead song, it was a Bobby Bland song. I love that song, but I sang “Lovelight” with Mickey Hart’s band and I don’t think he liked the way I was doing it –I was doing it like Bobby Bland style –so that one went out of their set! [laughs]
JAMBASE: Did you have any history with the Dead guys at all? Did the Meters and the Dead ever cross paths in the heyday?
GPJ: No, not at all. Mickey Hart was really my first introduction to the music. I knew of the Dead of course, but I didn’t listen to any of their music. During the Meters I was probably listening to a lot of New Orleans music mostly. But I was listening to the same New Orleans music that the Dead probably were.
JAMBASE: Let’s talk about Jam Cruise. You’re a regular. Why is this an important commitment of your time?
GPJ: I think what’s evolved here is that this is kind of my wife and I’s anniversary present to each other. The first year I was invited to do Jam Cruise, I got the invite, and it wasn’t really for a lot of money, so I said that the only way I’d be able to do it was to make it a wedding anniversary present. Our anniversary is December 28, and we rarely get any time to enjoy our anniversary at least doing stuff like that. So we said, let’s do it, this will be cool.
We rebook on it every year, at the end of that year’s trip. They’ll call later on and tell me they can refund my booking fees because they’ve found me a spot on the gig, but it’s great. This year I’m doing a few different things, inclduing the jam room and then a game show. I’m an artist at large.
JAMBASE: You’re one of the few who’s really mastered that artist at large role — you take to it.
GPJ: Yeah, I’ve done it a bunch. This year at Bear Creek I was artist at large, and same last year, and I played with the usual suspects, but this year I really went after playing with bands that I didn’t know. It was my most successful Bear Creek for that.
JAMBASE: What experiences there were particularly memorable? I was going to ask you for a good sit-in story anyway.
GPJ: There was a band called Orgone that was really cool. I’m not really good at remembering names of bands, but they’re the one that sticks in my mind.
JAMBASE: How much planning goes into these artist at large sit-ins? Do you just sort of roll up with your bass? “Hey, I’m here?”
GPJ: There is some planning. Some. At Bear Creek they have a young lady who lets the groups know that I’m going to be there and would they like me to come sit in with them, and none of them said no, which is cool. There’s another band I can’t think of right now [Come Back Alice] that I was with –they had a guy who was the front singer and they also had a female player who was playing violin and she was just killing. I had a wonderful time, the whole thing. If I’m sitting in, we will do what you want, but it’s always a lot cooler if we play your music.
JAMBASE: Is there any sit-in you’d turn down? George Porter Jr. plays, I don’t know, fusion-metal?
GPJ: Absolutely. It’s all music to me, man. I’m old school. Music is based around a 12-bar blues. I don’t care if you go all over the place, it’s more or less a 12-bar blues. My job as a bass player is to pay attention to the drummer. I need to know what the chord changes are but I lock with the drummer. I’m going to lock with the drummer even if the drummer doesn’t know it [laughs]. That’s the part of the gig I take very serious. Become one with the drummer. We have nothing but a pocket and anyone can climb into that pocket and do whatever they want.
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